This story first appeared in Hot Pod Insider, The Verge’s newsletter on podcasting and the audio industry. Subscribe here for more.
The three co-hosts of the One Tree Hill rewatch podcast Drama Queens were working on their latest episode when they got the news that their union — SAG-AFTRA — was going on strike. As former cast members of the popular CW show that capped off its last season in 2012, Sophia Bush, Hilarie Burton, and Bethany Joy Lenz were suddenly in a bind: fans wanted new episodes of the podcast, but the hosts weren’t sure if they could talk about their old show without breaking strike rules. For now, the hosts plan on just talking about everything but the show One Tree Hill on their One Tree Hill podcast — until hearing otherwise from the union.
“Yeah, dude, we had a text chain yesterday,” said Burton as she recounted these events during Drama Queens’ latest episode, which dropped on Monday. Like most podcasts, Drama Queens episodes are recorded a few days in advance. “Our union went on strike, which I think we all support, and we’re all fully backing that. But what that means is that there is a lot of gray area about whether or not you can promote a show that was a SAG-AFTRA contract. And One Tree Hill was for us,” said Burton, noting it was the show that secured her membership in the union.
The acting union’s strike order doesn’t just forbid members from working on unionized film and TV productions from the AMPTP (the alliance representing major US film studios, distributors, and television networks, as well as streaming platforms like Netflix) — it also explicitly states they can’t promote that work in the public. So no red carpets or film festivals and no panels at Comic-Con. And while SAG members can appear on and host podcasts, they can’t promote union-covered work on said podcasts.
The strike could cover practically a century’s worth of American film and television
But there’s still a fair amount of uncertainty over whether celebrity rewatch podcasts are a form of promotion and whether the strike order applies to virtually every production covered under a SAG-AFTRA Theatrical/TV contract. Given that the two unions date back to the 1930s, the strike order’s reach could go well beyond shows like One Tree Hill that last aired more than a decade ago and cover practically a century’s worth of American film and television. Not to mention that a large chunk of that work is available to stream, either on streamers like Netflix or PVOD (premium video on demand) platforms like Amazon Video.
Celebrity rewatch podcasts such as Parks and Recollection, The West Wing Weekly, Office Ladies, 90210MG, Zack to the Future (a podcast about Saved by the Bell), and many others have surged in popularity in recent years. They tap into the nostalgia of fans and serve as a way for them to form parasocial connections with actors. “So many of these podcasts are set up in a manner that means it feels like it is your friends that you’re rewatching the show with, and as a result, the connection that the listeners feel with those actors, their characters, and the show’s universe is made exponentially stronger,” wrote Alex Strang, an editor from behavioral analysis firm Canvas8.
The fate of celebrity rewatch podcasts is not just a big deal for fans — it also impacts both actors and the podcast industry at large. Many celebrity rewatch podcasts are sizable hits and draw regular listeners. For shows and actors who may otherwise fade into obscurity, the podcasts are a chance to reenter the zeitgeist.
In response to a reporter’s question on fan conventions, SAG’s chief negotiator, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, at a presser last week said this: “In general terms, any kind of promotion of any project that was made under the TV/theatrical agreements, either current or past, will not be allowed, whether that’s a con, a festival, a panel, on social media, at a premiere — in any form.” This could leave a number of TV rewatch and pop culture podcasts in a weird spot, at least when it comes to celebrity hosts of rewatch podcasts or SAG guests.
It seems obvious to some that celebrity rewatch podcasts are off-limits for SAG-AFTRA actors. Every week, the three hosts of Drama Queens hone in on an episode of One Tree Hill and recount their experiences on set. And while Bush, Burton, and Joy Lenz starred on the show, it doesn’t belong to them — the property gets passed around like hot potatoes by companies that the SAG-AFTRA union is currently at war with. (One Tree Hill first aired on the WB, which then became the CW, the majority stake of which Paramount Global and WBD sold off last year, and although you can no longer stream the show on Netflix, you can stream it on the Disney-owned Hulu or WBD-owned HBO Max. Anyway, all struck companies.) So even though One Tree Hill is no longer on air, there are corporate entities that are still profiting from it.
“We’ve called our union leadership, and they’re inundated with other people with similar questions.”
Burton told listeners on Monday that the hosts have reached out to their union representative for more guidance — but the union hasn’t gotten back to them yet.
“What we’ve been told as actors is that you’re not allowed to promote anything that was a SAG-AFTRA job. And because our show currently is still streaming, even though we filmed it 20 years ago, is doing a rewatch podcast still a SAG-AFTRA job?” Burton asked on the show. “So we’ve called our union leadership, and they’re inundated with other people with similar questions.”
The SAG-AFTRA union also hasn’t gotten back to Hot Pod about the matter. Hot Pod also spoke to representatives from two major Hollywood talent agencies, as well as numerous podcast companies and hosts. No one has received clear instructions from the union itself on what to do with celebrity rewatch podcasts. So, for now, companies and hosts are winging it.
Take Let the Mystery Be, a rewatch podcast on the HBO show The Leftovers hosted by Chris Murphy and Matt Austin, which debuted its very first episode last week. Although neither host is a member of SAG or WGA, they were planning on booking guests who were former cast members. “Now, we will obviously hold off just in case,” Murphy told Hot Pod.
The popular SNL rewatch podcast Fly on the Wall, hosted by show alums Dana Carvey and David Spade, figured out a loophole: they did the work ahead of time, and newly recorded episodes will avoid struck works. “The [hosts] completed all of the recordings for the rest of the season of Audacy’s Fly on the Wall pre-strike, so we’re currently releasing pre-recorded, banked episodes, with the exception of one or two more episodes which they’ll be recording with people that are not promoting any struck work or projects. Just stopping by to chat,” said Hillary Schupf, vice president of publicity at the Audacy-owned podcast studio Cadence13.
But the future of other wildly successful celebrity-hosted rewatch podcasts is unclear. Office Ladies, a podcast hosted by former The Office cast members Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey, has not posted a new episode since the strike began. SiriusXM (which owns the show’s production company, Earwolf) said it had no comment on the show’s status when Hot Pod reached out. Neither has Parks and Recollection (a Parks and Recreation rewatch podcast), which re-published an old episode on Monday.
Neither Wondery, iHeartPodcasts, Crooked Media, or Sony Music — which all distribute celebrity-hosted rewatch and pop culture podcasts — have given on-the-record responses to Hot Pod’s request for comment.
The It’s Always Sunny Podcast announced on Twitter that it was on hiatus, though the show has not specified why. TV Insider reported that the debut of the Bones rewatch podcast Boneheads, which was set for July 19th, has been put on hold due to the strike.
If you already had an interview recorded before the strike, both unions are okay with publishing it
And it’s important to note here that not all of SAG-AFTRA is on strike — merely those who work for film or TV productions. Despite accusations of “scabbing” on social media, the many broadcast journalists, Broadway actors, and audio industry professionals in the union are free to carry out their work with non-struck entities.
“SAG has not reached out to me about [Pod Yourself a Gun],” comedian and host Matt Lieb told Hot Pod, referencing the rewatch podcast he hosts with Vince Mancini that covers The Sopranos and The Wire. “It would be really funny if they did, as most of the show is us denigrating the Irish.”
While Pod Yourself a Gun is independently produced, Lieb also works with Maximum Fun, an artist-owned independent podcast studio in Los Angeles. Lieb wrote that the guidance he got from Maximum Fun was this: if you already had an interview recorded before the strike, both unions are okay with publishing it. But no interviews with SAG actors promoting projects after the show has begun.
Senior producer Kevin Ferguson told Hot Pod that Maximum Fun shared guidelines from both SAG and WGA with its internal productions. “The gist, as I understand it, seems to be that striking members are prohibited from appearing on podcasts in service of promoting work covered under the contract,” wrote Ferguson in an email.
“Say, a book written by a SAG member. Can they come on one of our shows to promote the book?”
While Maximum Fun isn’t a union shop, it works with hosts and employees who are members of either or both SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild, which is also on strike. The Writers Guild is also asking members not to promote their shows to the public. While many WGA members have spoken about certain shows they’ve worked on in social media and the press — it’s usually to point out the adverse working conditions they were under while employed by them.
The murkiness around both unions’ messaging has led to some treading lightly — maybe too lightly. Ferguson called SAG’s guidelines on promotion “a sort of moving target.”
“Stuff like FYC campaigns are very clear cut — that’s a no-go. But it gets murkier when you talk about, say, a book written by a SAG member. Can they come on one of our shows to promote the book? What if the host asks about a movie they did years ago? Some members are okay with it; others aren’t. We’ve encountered different comfort levels among SAG and WGA members when approaching them with interview requests,” Ferguson wrote to Hot Pod.
The jury is out on whether the double strike will help or harm the podcast industry. More clarity on podcasts from the unions could help producers more easily book celebrity guests and help SAG members navigate what topics they can talk about on podcasts. For Hollywood actors facing what could be months without film or TV work, podcasts and other forms of media could be a potential opportunity. The strike could also bring in new listeners, no longer preoccupied by binge-watching shows.
Some in the industry are optimistic about this potential new influx of talent and listeners that the strike could bring to the podcast world. “I’m guessing we’re going to see a slew of new celeb podcasts hit the market in a month or two. It’ll be 2020 all over again,” one producer at the podcast division of a TV network told Hot Pod.
“For Your Consideration” (FYC) campaigns related to awards shows may look to podcasts
But the podcast industry is also much more cash-strapped than it was in 2020. Scott Porch of Big IP Media, a podcast company whose roster includes Film Speak, Star Wars Explained, and other pop culture titles, is more cautious. “Podcast distributors are not going to go on a sudden buying spree in this market, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing for writers and actors. I’d rather see creators bet on themselves and own their own output,” said Porch.
Given the number of celebrity podcasts that were flops over the past few years, podcast companies are going to be careful about who they do sign. “There’s no lack of stories from this past year where a show launched and flopped because there wasn’t enough forethought here. With what we saw in the ad market this last year, I can’t imagine a lot of smaller shops will want to over-index on celebrity shows this coming year,” said The Podglomerate’s CEO, Jeff Umbro.
Where the podcast industry could see some unintended gains from the strike is in advertising, The Podglomerate marketing and audience VP Joni Deutsch added. Without actors to promote projects on late-night shows, film festivals, and press junkets, studios may turn to podcasts and social media. “For Your Consideration” (FYC) campaigns related to awards shows may also look to podcasts. If the strike lasts through fall, there will be no new scripted television for advertisers to park their ads.
“I have a feeling that advertisers will look to advertising on podcasts as we look to the fall and winter,” said Deutsch.
It’s a potentially positive development for the podcast industry, which has had a rough year of its own due to a soft ad market and over-investments. During a time when much of the streaming entertainment industry is in crisis and thousands of creative workers are hitting the picket lines — the podcast world may weather the storm.
Correction July 21, 12:48 PM ET: A previous version of this article said Pod Yourself A Gun is a Maximum Fun production. The podcast is actually an independent production.